CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. -- Outside a scruffy, two-story building, armed and flak-jacketed U.S. soldiers stood watch under a sagging Afghan flag. Inside, the provincial governor, a Hamid Karzai look-alike in a striped robe and Karakul cap, pleaded with two tribal elders to get along. Only the Taliban would benefit from their dispute, the governor's aide said with a nervous click of his worry beads.
An American at the table asked to speak. If they couldn't settle their differences over landownership, he gently warned, a U.S.-funded dam designed to supply power and water to both tribes might not be built. As the elders glared at each other, a Dari language interpreter tried to convey their venom into English.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," an American officer broke in from the sidelines. "We're out of time." Backbones relaxed, smiles broke out, and Afghans and Americans walked together into a rainy Indiana morning.
The State Department hopes that this kind of role-playing will prepare hundreds of new "civilian surge" recruits to deal with two foreign cultures -- the U.S. military and Afghanistan. The mock dramas are set at a faux Afghan marketplace and sandbagged forward operating base constructed amid the cornfields and silos of southwestern Indiana.
When President Obama announced what the White House called a "comprehensive new strategy" for the Afghanistan war last March, he called for a "dramatic increase in our civilian effort" that included additional diplomats and experts in agriculture, education, health and rule of law sent to Kabul and to provincial reconstruction teams across the country. Despite early difficulties finding and clearing sufficient numbers of volunteers, Deputy Secretary Jacob L. Lew said during a visit to Indiana on Thursday that the State Department was "on track" to triple the number of civilians, to 974, by early next year.
U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry has asked for at least 300 more civilians over the next three years, as the number of both civilians and U.S. military troops in Afghanistan is expected to surpass those in Iraq. The 2010 Defense budget for the first time projected higher expenditures for the Afghan war than for the waning Iraq conflict; the State Department has $6 billion to spend in combined 2009 and 2010 funds.
Obama is now deliberating over another new Afghanistan strategy, likely to include tens of thousands of new U.S. troops. But Lew said he did not anticipate major changes in the civilian profile. "We're doing contingency planning to be able to respond to a number of options," he said, including the possible redeployment of U.S. forces to larger cities from more remote Afghan outposts.
Although the State Department hires private security guards to protect its diplomats in Iraq, civilians in Afghanistan are almost completely dependent on the military to protect and transport them. The result has been a close but sometimes rocky relationship, fraught with culture clashes and conflicting imperatives on the ground.
Senior Pentagon officials and soldiers on the ground have repeatedly complained that promised civilians have been slow to arrive and sometimes ill-equipped for their assigned tasks. The State Department, massively outmanned and out-resourced by the military, is ever-suspicious of being overwhelmed.
The Indiana program, located on a National Guard facility where active duty units also conduct pre-Afghanistan training, was established in July as an attempt to iron out civil-military and Afghan cultural problems before they occur. In vignettes scripted by government officials, Afghanistan-bound civilians spend a week learning to tell the difference between a captain and a colonel, climbing in and out of armored Humvees, reacting to village bombings and interacting with Afghans.
The soldiers are real. So are the Afghans -- recruited by a Virginia Beach-based defense consulting firm, the McKellar Corporation, from U.S. immigrant communities. The search began at the Bamiyan, an Afghan restaurant in Falls Church, contractor Jim McKellar said. Through word of mouth, he assembled a stable of 500 Afghan actors like Mohammed Pir Mohammad, a former Afghan diplomat who frequently plays the role of provincial governor or district official.
The civilians are a disparate group of retired and current Foreign Service officers, long-ago Peace Corp volunteers, academics and Agriculture Department employees like Kathy Gunderson, 57, who said her only previous trip abroad was to Canada. Speaking in the soft cadences of her native Appalachia, Gunderson said volunteered because she thought her skills could help Afghans produce enough food to feed themselves. "I'm more sure of this I have been about anything else in my life," she said.
Bill Harris, 59, who played the role of the Provincial Reconstruction Team leader trying to persuade tribal elders to give up centuries of warfare in return for a new dam, has a better idea of what lies in store for them. The first U.S. diplomat to enter Kabul with a U.S. combat unit in 2002, he retired from the Foreign Service last year to Colorado Springs -- where he was in the middle of a round of golf when his cellphone rang with a recruitment call.
"I tried to get out of it," he said of the training course. He leaves for Kandahar on Sunday.